Sit. Stay. Mosaic Newsletter #6

Happy fall! The weather switch has flipped, and the days are growing shorter. It's a perfect time to consider garden goals for next year, and in this newsletter, our last for the year, we'll share a few ideas for creating a well-used and well-loved seating area. A little time measuring and drawing now, with plenty of time to ponder, may help you build your own beautiful outdoor room by next summer.

When sketching our first concepts for a space, we often start by pondering the location and design of seating areas. Of course, each element influences the others, but outdoor rooms for entertaining, eating or just relaxing are the heart of many gardens. Below are a few rules of thumb to help you design your perfect seating area.

A courtyard dining room, just outside the kitchen, maximizes human space while maintaining a little distance from the neighbor's cedar fence.

Function is key to a successful, well-used seating area. From beginning to end of your design process, return to the questions of how you will use the space. Do you want an intimate dining room for two to four, an area to barbecue with a crowd, or a cozy nook for meditation? Have you chosen materials that will make the space easy to use and care for? Great design matches form to function, and focusing on your practical goals for a space will answer more questions than any article could.

The cantilevered ipe bench in the right size of this photo is a private, shady spot to relax.

Location, location, location. Consider how the area will relate to the house and the rest of the garden. Areas for eating and entertaining are best located with easy access to the kitchen. If you think about how many trips you take to and from the table before and during a dinner party, suddenly the cozy, shady spot at the back of the property seems like a long way away. Conversely, a short journey through the garden and a little privacy can make a quiet bench seem like a world of its own. In any space, a great view of the rest of the garden (or the greater landscape, if you're that lucky) is always an asset.

Fit the size of a seating area to its function. Even a modest dining area, for instance, needs room for table, chairs, and a comfortable flow of traffic. Likewise, a quiet spot for a couple to enjoy the sunset should be small enough to feel intimate, but with enough space to not feel overgrown or cramped. These are simple concepts, but they can be overlooked in a challenging space. In the courtyard garden pictured at the beginning of this article, we transformed a tight, rarely used space, hemmed in by the house, the neighbor's fence and a thick laurel hedge, into an outdoor dining room. We had to be creative with other aspects of our design, from planting in narrow beds to screening for privacy, but making room for people came first. The stone patio is the perfect spot for an al fresco dinner for four, with room to serve and mingle.

The ipe deck is our most used garden room.

Think outside, around and through the box. It can take time and lots of creative thought to discover a solution beyond obvious, flawed options. When we moved into our house, there was no good location for an outdoor dining area. Every obvious place was too exposed to the street or too out of the way. We weren't willing to settle however, and after what seemed like ages, we came up with the idea of adding a sliding glass door off of our bedroom onto a house-level ipe deck. The deck is such a success that we hardly eat indoors in the summer. Don't give up when finding the perfect location or layout takes a little head scratching or a minor remodel! Consider the desired "feeling" of your space. A warm, open space with a view over the garden feels very different than a cozy, shady corner. Surrounding plants and hardscape will strongly influence the ultimate feeling your seating area, but the unchangeable conditions of a space, such as exposure and elevation relative to the house and the rest of the garden color its character.

We used a rusting steel wall and plantings to separate and screen the Gregory garden's seating area from the neighbors.

Mind the edges. When possible, leave at least a narrow layer of surrounding plantings between a seating area and the nearest fence, hedge or property line. The aesthetic softness will make a seating area feel more comfortable and part of the garden. When that is not a possibility, as in the Gregory garden at right, creative selection of screening materials makes all the difference.

Materials matter. There are many options for the "floor" of a seating area, and no one option is right for every circumstance. Pea gravel can be a soft, cohesive, inexpensive solution, but it requires regular maintenance and is rarely the right choice for a dining area where chairs will displace the gravel each time they are moved. Well-laid flagstone can be a beautiful, solid surface for a dining area, but may be overkill for a simple bench.

A custom metal bench anchors one end of this simple, pea gravel terrace.

Finishing touches. When you have created your beautiful space in the perfect spot, treat yourself to some good looking furniture. Sometimes a great seating area is rarely used, just because there is is not a comfortable, attractive place to sit. We sometimes design furniture to fit one of our gardens, but there are many fun options, from retail to resale to repainting an old chair a fun new color.

Thanks for keeping up with us! We hope you enjoy all of your fall adventures in and out of the garden. We look forward to checking in on the journal and in our next (spring 2010!) newsletter.